Ga. widow sues, claiming dispatchers said EMS was coming to aid spouse but never arrived
Madelene Smith’s suit says firefighters told her to drive her husband, Hugh Max Smith Jr., who later died after suffering a brain injury from a lack of oxygen
By Julia Marnin
The Charlotte Observer
WAYNE COUNTY, Ga. — A woman was hopeful an ambulance would arrive at any moment for her husband desperately needing oxygen after calling 911 twice.
Madelene Smith, of Wayne County, Georgia, was assured an ambulance was on its way by county dispatchers — but it never came on April 14, 2021, according to her lawsuit now in federal court.
Instead, firefighters, who were unaware of the dire situation, arrived and told her the truth, the lawsuit says. They said an ambulance wasn’t coming and directed Smith to take her husband to the nearby hospital immediately, according to the lawsuit.
Hugh Max Smith Jr. died at age 49 on April 19, 2021, after suffering a brain injury from a lack of oxygen, a 57-page amended complaint filed March 9 in court says.
His death could have been prevented but was caused by the “actions and inactions” of county officials and first responders, according to Smith.
“There’s so much he’s missed out on since he’s been gone,” Hugh Max Smith’s daughter Arrin Turner told WTOC-TV, which first reported on the wrongful death lawsuit. “I got married, he wasn’t there. I had a baby, and he wasn’t there.”
Smith is suing Wayne County, the Wayne County Ambulance Service, Wayne County Emergency Services Director Richard Johnson, Wayne County Emergency Management Director Donnie Ray, former Wayne County Administrator Ed Jeffords and dispatchers identified as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2.
Emily Hancock, an attorney representing the county, its ambulance service, Johnson, Ray and the dispatchers, declined a request for comment from McClatchy News on April 4. Pat O’Connor, who represents Jeffords, also declined a request for comment from McClatchy News on April 4.
Hancock and attorney Richard Strickland filed a motion to dismiss Smith’s amended complaint on March 23, court records show.
Jeffords resigned from his position as county administrator on Jan. 11, according to WTOC-TV. He didn’t resign over the case, which was filed in Wayne County court on Jan. 12 before it was transferred to federal court, the outlet reported.
The day of the 911 calls
Hugh Max Smith began having breathing issues after coming home from work on April 14, 2021, according to the complaint.
This led Smith to take her husband to Wayne Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia after undergoing testing and his oxygen levels were evaluated, the complaint says. He was discharged when his oxygen levels became more stable around 8:30 p.m., according to the complaint, which notes that Smith was told to constantly keep tabs on his breathing.
When the couple got home, Hugh Max Smith struggled to breathe again. Smith checked his oxygen levels with an oximeter, which showed it had dropped to the low 80’s and then to 79, according to the complaint.
A typical oximeter reading for most people is between 95% and 100%, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Smith recognized her husband’s life was in danger and called 911 around 10:19 p.m. when her husband’s oximeter showed 79, the complaint says.
The first 911 dispatcher told Smith EMS would be sent, according to the complaint.
Then, her husband’s breathing became more rapid as he started sweating and gasping for air, the complaint says.
When 18 minutes went by after the 911 call, an ambulance hadn’t arrived at the couple’s home and “a sickening feeling began to sink in” for Smith, who “realized she could have driven him to the hospital herself,” according to the complaint.
She called 911 again when a second dispatcher answered at 10:37 p.m., the complaint says.
“They are on the way,” this dispatcher told Smith about an ambulance, according to the complaint.
“Ok … well … his oxygen [level] is in the 70s … Would we be quicker driving?” Smith asked in reply, the complaint says.
The second dispatcher told Smith the ambulance was on its way and “should be there at any time” before the call ended, according to the complaint.
At this point, Smith “continued to wait and watch her husband whose condition was deteriorating before her eyes,” the complaint says.
Typically, it takes about seven minutes for EMS units to arrive on scene after a 911 call, according to a report published in the National Library of Medicine in July 2017. In rural areas the average response time increases to over 14 minutes.
A fire truck arrives to Smith’s house and she learns the ‘truth’
Twenty-five minutes after Smith first called 911, firefighters from the City of Jesup Fire Department arrived in a fire truck, according to the complaint.
The firefighters didn’t know her husband needed oxygen, didn’t have oxygen to give him, were unable to provide him with medical help and said their truck wasn’t equipped to transport him to the hospital, the complaint says.
Then, one firefighter exclaimed “an ambulance is not coming!” and told Smith to drive her husband to the emergency room, according to the complaint.
Smith rushed over to her husband, helped him from his chair to the car with two firefighters and drove him to the hospital, the complaint says.
“At least the firefighters arrived and told (Smith) the truth: there was never an ambulance coming to help her,” the complaint, which accuses the dispatchers of lying to her, argues.
Her husband dies a few days later
Hugh Max Smith was admitted to the hospital at 11 p.m. and went into cardiac arrest from a lack of oxygen when his heart stopped, according to the complaint.
Doctors and nurses restarted his heart and his oxygen levels rose to 95 — but he never awoke, the complaint says.
Doctors learned the lack of oxygen caused him to have an anoxic brain injury and he was put on life support and taken to the Mayo Clinic by air on April 15, 2021, the complaint says.
There, doctors said his brain function “would not return and recommended discontinuation of life support,” according to the complaint.
Hugh Max Smith died on April 19, 2021, due to anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and systolic heart failure, the complaint says.
Smith is suing on several counts over his death, including negligence, and demands a trial by jury with her lawsuit. She’s seeking an unspecified amount of damages.